John MacLean, a working class hero - The story of Scotland's greatest revolutionary figure – Part One

Some will seek to dismiss the ideas and programme for which John MacLean gave his life as being outdated. It is hoped that this modest contribution will revive those ideas and contribute towards the real memory of John MacLean - the greatest revolutionary Scotland has ever produced.

"I am not here as the accused - I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot..."

Ours is an age when much of history, and particularly the history of the socialist movement, has been distorted and falsified, when political deception has become so widespread that it discourages huge numbers from participating. Some will seek to dismiss the ideas and programme for which John MacLean gave his life as being outdated. It is hoped that this modest contribution, despite its limitations and deficiencies, will simultaneously revive those ideas and contribute towards the real memory of John MacLean-the greatest revolutionary Scotland has ever produced.

The system which MacLean fought so hard against is the same one which robs us today. The exploiters and profiteers who view workers as a means to enrich themselves deliberately contrive these conditions. John MacLean's ideas are as relevant today as they were in 1923 when he died at the premature age of 44 years, having given his life to the cause of revolutionary socialism. In John MacLean's death, the movement lost an outstanding Marxist revolutionary theoretician and tireless activist. MacLean had little use for the windy blatherskite or for the cloister sociologist. His life, his work and his premature death should be an inspiration to socialists worldwide. For not only is MacLean's memory a golden heritage of the early Marxist struggle against capitalism and British Imperialism, but should be studied to advantage by the workers of all lands. MacLean is Scotland's most precious contribution to the international proletariat.

We live at a turning point in world history. This brief work outlines the life of John MacLean, his background and his political ideas. It is meant as a message of optimism-but John MacLean also made mistakes, which must be examined honestly. This is not to denigrate MacLean; we will leave that task to others. We do it to learn from the lessons of history to avoid a repetition of those mistakes.

As time has passed, some Scottish nationalists have sought to claim MacLean as their own. In the pages that follow, reasons will be given for the rejection of this fraud. In this present period, a number of individuals, and groupings within the Scottish Socialist Party have recently busied themselves revising MacLean's politics to justify their capitulation from International Socialism to "left" Scottish Nationalism, and with it their continuous watering-down of even the most basic socialist ideas. Sadly, this false perspective is seducing many of the SSP "leaders" and "strategists" who previously claimed to be Marxists. This flawed strategy-very similar to the one which has until now failed the working class of Ireland-with the notion that "labour must wait" until after independence is achieved, acts as a deception and diversion from the real struggle of the working class.

It is a tragedy of enormous proportions that many of the "left" in Britain at the present time seek to find a way of solving the problems faced by the vast majority of working people within the system of capitalism. These political activists know nothing and forget everything. If it is true that the world has never created so much wealth; that technology knows no bounds-then why are we being forced to work longer hours at and under more pressure than ever before? Yes, the human race has made much progress, but tell that to the parents of one of the children who drop dead every three seconds for want of food or medicine. Tell it to the 1 in 3 children born into poverty in Britain every single day. Tell it to the 55,000 old age pensioners who die of hypothermia every winter in Britain, the fourth richest country in the world. And this, at a time when Chancellor Gordon Brown tells us we are living in a period of unprecedented financial growth. Britain as a country is now £1 TRILLION in debt, outstripping our Gross Domestic Product. In December 2004 the Office for National Statistics reported that the wealth gap in Britain had widened significantly since New Labour came to power in 1997, with the top 1% of the population now owning 23% of all wealth, up from 17% in 1991. The report, entitled "Focus on Social Inequalities", also shows that just 25% of the population owns 75% of all the wealth. 1.6 million workers in Britain take home over £8,000 a week while nearly a quarter live on less than the official poverty income of £194 per week. 8 million individuals are classed as "economically inactive". That means they are not working and not considered for work. In other words, they do not appear in the official figures. This indictment on the system of capitalism and the cowardice and duplicity of the "leaders" of the working class would have been MacLean's business and that is why we make it ours.

It is an inescapable fact that the struggle forward for humanity can never succeed on the basis of tinkering with the system of capitalism. There will be no future for the emancipation of the working class unless it is part of the socialist transformation of society. This historic and inevitable struggle by the working class against exploitation and oppression will triumph under the leadership of the working class, or it will never triumph! This was the message of John MacLean and this is the message of this modest contribution. For socialist struggle is international or it is nothing!

Kenny McGuigan

Edinburgh, July 2005

British Imperialism: the World's First Superpower

The Scottish bourgeoisie assisted in the development of the British Empire to such an extent that without their connivance, it would have been impossible for the English ruling class to develop in the manner in which they did. Comparative to size, the Scottish bourgeoisie played a greater role than any other section of the new order. Scottish merchants and capitalists benefited enormously from the new exploitation and Scottish dynasties were built up and prospered. The contrast with Ireland could not have been greater. Dominated, exploited by England, the feeble Irish bourgeoisie had been halted from developing. The oppression was fuelled even stronger resentment when a series of brutal and inhumane policies by the London government saw the Irish population fall by 3 million in the "Great Famine" of the 1840s. British imperialism and Scottish capitalist's interests in particular, played an important part in developing the north east part of Ireland for industrial exploitation around Belfast. This proved very useful to British imperialism, when in order to cut across the social revolution developing in Ireland, the living body of the country was divided and six counties in the northeast remained under British rule, underpinned by the monster of sectarianism.

Scotland was politically and economically different from Ireland. While the Irish bourgeoisie were stunted and the nation, generally, oppressed, the Scottish ruling class benefited from the Act of Union, eagerly collaborating with their English counterparts to reap the fruits of expansion and imperialism as the Empire grew.

In the late 1880's, Britain was the leading imperialist power in the world. During the last 20 years of the nineteenth century British investment in foreign and colonial stock quadrupled while its exports went amass to the less developed world. The entire planet was carved up between the major capitalist powers-much like today. A group of twelve ruling elites were in cut-throat competition with each other. Between 1870 and 1900 the entire sub-Saharan Africa was partitioned into 23 colonies owned and operated by 6 European powers. Britain was the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world, the foremost industrial power and the banking centre for the world's finance. British shipyards supplied 90% of the world's ships and the British merchants with their products dominated the world's shipping lanes. The British Empire covered more than a quarter of the globe. It had the world's most powerful army and the British ruling class was the richest and most successful in history. The Clydeside area produced 70% of all iron tonnage in Britain between 1850 and 1870 and one wave of successful manufacture followed another. First there was tobacco and cotton and later heavy industry and coal. The first steel-hulled ship in the world was built and launched on the Clyde, and by 1855 when steel was replacing iron, Clydeside accounted for 50% of the world's annual tonnage of shipping while it was the world's biggest exporter of steam locomotives.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Glasgow was the "second city of the Empire". The Clyde Valley district was a world centre of coal mining, shipbuilding, steel production and heavy and light engineering. This district contained Britain's biggest concentration of capital accumulation, giving rise to giant Scottish companies and the dynasties that ran and milked them. In turn, they were tied to the indigenous Scottish banking system. All this and they enjoyed privileged access to the British state.

The enormous wealth being created in Britain at a spectacular rate was unprecedented. However, in Marxist terms, there was a massive contradiction about these new developments in the system. While all this wealth was being created, the workers involved saw their conditions and wages become worse by the year. Until the middle of the 1890s real wages rose slightly but irregularly, from 1896 till 1900 they remained static, then, after 1900 they began to fall. The privileged and parasitic few had never had it so good while for the majority it was a daily grind in disgusting and pitiful conditions. The repercussions of this obscene exploitation manifested itself in the period known historically as "The Great Unrest". From 1910 - 1914 a massive wave of working class militancy and political struggle, rocked the British establishment...

A Revolutionary is born

It could be argued that John MacLean was born a revolutionary. His parents, Daniel and Anne (nee MacPhee) were both victims of the barbaric Highland Clearances. Daniel, from the Isle of Mull and Anne from Fort William had witnessed their families being unceremoniously evicted from their homes as the landlord left them with nowhere to live, nothing to eat and no means of earning a living. A scenario repeated throughout the Highlands of Scotland forcing families to emigrate to America or move to other parts of the country where work could be found so that men could feed their families. Family units were broken up forever with parents never seeing their children again and husbands separated from wives.

Many years later, "wee Johnnie's" maternal grandmother would sit him on her knee and relate the horrors of that time which sank into young John's consciousness. And so it was that as a young man, when he read Marx's account of the notorious Clearances MacLean was able to recall his family's suffering at the hands of these truculent, barbarous and ruthless tyrants.

John MacLean was born on 24th August 1879 in Pollokshaws, at that time an industrial town in Renfrewshire on the outskirts of Glasgow. He was the sixth of seven children and life was extremely tough, Daniel plying his trade as a potter for a modest wage. Only four of the MacLean children survived which was about average survival rates for the working class at that time. When John was nine years old, his father died of silicosis an illness brought about by his working conditions.

John was a bright and industrious pupil at his elementary school, Pollok Academy, a fact not lost on his mother who encouraged him to stay on at school. Her meagre widow's pension was augmented by John working as a message boy before and after school, and he also earned extra as a caddy at Thornliebank golf course on a Saturday. He witnessed factory life at first hand working in a printing works through the school holidays. It was a punishing schedule and one that John MacLean would maintain for the rest of his short life.

At that time, most working class children left school at twelve years of age, primarily because the wage was needed in the household. But John's mother was adamant that her "wee Johnnie" should remain in education and he moved to Queens Park Secondary before moving on to Polmadie School as a pupil teacher, and finally graduating as a qualified teacher in 1900. It was an outstanding achievement by someone from MacLean's background.

During MacLean's formative years he and his family were Calvinists and regular church attendees. "The poor will always be with you," said the Bible, and they certainly will be so long as the assortment of businessmen, mill owners, landlords and factory bosses, steal the surplus value from their employees. In his youth the sight of prosperous and wealthy churchgoers had a great effect on MacLean.

A free thinker with an enquiring mind and insatiable thirst for knowledge, John MacLean epitomised the theory that one's environment determines political development and consciousness. MacLean was rapidly coming to understand, without having even read any theory, that the endemic poverty which surrounded him and in which he and his family were forced to live, was the result of the capitalist system.

In 1900, when he was 21 years of age, MacLean was teaching at Strathbungo School and had become politically involved in a loose gathering of advanced political thinkers and radicals, who "discussed philosophic, scientific and literary subjects. Problems of present day interest and especially those concerning the social and religious life of the people." Nan Milton's hugely enjoyable biography of her father, John MacLean, tells how this grouping caused near apoplexy locally with large numbers disapproving of them. Every subject imaginable was debated and discussed, from anarchy to astronomy. However, Nan Milton recalls that one of the main topics of interest was religion - seen by many working class people as a barrier to socialism to this day, which it need not be. Nan wrote:

"The majority of members although they might not call themselves atheists, hated the churches and their superstitious doctrines. They believed that the first step to a better life was the breaking of the religious yoke. Then the eyes of the poor, ignorant priest-ridden proletariat would be opened to the wonders of the universe and to the potentialities lying dormant in each individual."

In the Progressive Union, MacLean was encouraged and inspired by some of the most advanced thinkers of the time, few of whom ever received the recognition they deserved. Men like John MacDougall and his brother Daniel. Willie McGill, an anarchist who became renowned for his fearless confrontations with the enemies of the working class and who met injustice head-on, wherever he encountered it. MacLean formed a close friendship with Bill Stewart, who despite his youth was an advanced Marxist and respected throughout the socialist movement. Indefatigable MacLean enrolled on a course on economics at Glasgow University at his own expense, and here he found a pearl of great truth in the most important work of them all, Capital by Karl Marx. Capital laid bare the system of capitalism in a scientific way and confirmed the young MacLean as a Marxian socialist.

Period of Great Political Unrest

By the end of the Nineteenth century, the Social Democratic Foundation (SDF), Britain's first Marxist organisation, had gained a certain success where leaders like Tom Mann and Ben Tillet led the movement for "New Unionism", the great organisation of the unskilled workers into general trade unions. In Scotland, despite it's 20-year existence, the SDF had made little impact, but managed to hold some ground until the Scottish Labour Party was formed 1888. The Scottish Labour Party was a party based on the needs of the wage-earning class and concerned itself primarily with "bread and butter" issues. When the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in Bradford in 1893, the Scottish Labour Party was reconstituted and renamed the Scottish Council of the ILP. Interestingly, a Marxist of equal calibre and talent to MacLean, and who was then employed by Edinburgh Corporation and an early member of the ILP. His name was James Connolly, later one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, who was subsequently executed by the British.

It was a period of great political unrest with old ideas and institutions being challenged throughout Europe by the new organised working class. By 1902, John MacLean had become a fully conscious Marxists and we reprint a letter he had published in September of that year in the Pollokshaws News:

"To make wealth rapidly, capitalists have wrought men and women and children long hours at high speed and for wages that just keep them alive. Here the class struggle begins with the desire to steal the maximum from the workers. The workers feel the necessity for united effort, so that they may resist the attacks of the enemy, the capitalists. Trade Unions are formed and the strike is used to get as much of the wealth produced as possible. But wives and children starve and the unions must yield. Though united, the workers still fight an unequal battle. Hunger brings them to their knees and so most strikes have resulted in loss to the men. Whatever gains are made is soon lost at times of depression, when the masters need only threaten the lock-out to reduce wages..."

In this short piece, MacLean covers the basic different interests of the two main social classes: the proletariat (wage earners) and the bourgeoisie (exploiters). He shows the tactics used by the bosses and the only real option open to the workers, the strike weapon. He makes clear the need for the workers to unite into trade unions and how the boss class forces the worker to pay the penalty when the system goes into crisis.

MacLean spent as much time as he could educating himself in Marxist theory, economics, and working-class and industrial history. He was gaining personal confidence in his profession as a teacher and making progress and contacts in the Progressive Union. That he was a first-class orator has never been in doubt. What he was searching for was a scientific approach to politics, as opposed to the formalism and sterile approach adopted by the majority of the left and the liberal reformists. He found this approach in the science of Marxism.

The early 1900s saw an explosion of growth in trade union membership and also in the co-operative movements, led in the main by Liberal Party politicians and supporters. Up until this time, given the absence of a strong, organised party of labour, the working class viewed the Liberals as allies, more likely to grant concessions than the Tory Party, which was seen as the party of the rich. The ILP was yet young and enjoyed only limited working class support. 1900 saw the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, set up by a number of trade unions as well as groups like The Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation. In 1906, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party, and by 1906 had gained 29 Members of Parliament, including Keir Hardie.

When MacLean joined the SDF in 1903, it was the only openly Marxist organisation in Britain. Founded in 1881 by H.M. Hyndman as the Democratic Federation, two years later it adopted Marxian Socialism as its main principles. However, the leadership of the SDF, especially Hyndman, were deeply sectarian. This was a bone of contention within the ranks of the SDF, even before MacLean joined. In particular, its trade unionist members became increasingly critical of Hyndman's sectarian leadership. The main problems over lack of serious work in the trade unions and lack of organisation, together with divisions over syndicalism (the belief that industrial action throughout the organised working class was sufficient to bring about the fundamental changes for a better society), led ultimately to a split and the formation of the Socialist Labour Party. The new party attempted to connect revolutionary politics to the struggles taking place in the workplaces. Hyndman stayed in the SDF, as surprisingly did MacLean.

However, the sectarian degeneration of the SDF was becoming increasingly evident. While the party continued to enjoy some support, not least because of the efforts of MacLean and his comrades who worked tirelessly to build, it became increasingly isolated and impotent at times of great class struggle. As with all the pre-war socialist groupings, they remained simply propaganda circles, incapable of linking Marxist propaganda to the real everyday struggles of the working class. Their organic sectarianism remained a barrier to their involvement in the real life of the working-class movement.

Marxism on Tour

In 1902 MacLean was teaching at Kinning Park School and during the school holidays embarked on a speaking tour of Scotland, holding meetings and addressing workers whenever and wherever he could. On a tour of Hawick, MacLean stayed at the home of a local man, James Stothart, who owned a small business in the area. Naturally, MacLean tried to interest Stothart in his politics, but it seems got no response. But there was to be a silver lining after all. The man's niece, Agnes Wood lived with her uncle in the house and MacLean was able to embark on a friendship with her that would eventually lead to romance. Four years later, the couple became closer when Agnes moved to Glasgow to begin her training in nursing, and the couple eventually married in 1909. MacLean, however, continued with his punishing political schedule and built up a great friendship with Tom Kennedy (later Labour MP for Kirkcaldy) who was the SDF's Scottish organiser.

MacLean, while understanding the importance of trade unions, made every effort to argue for a mass revolutionary party based upon the organised working class. He did this in spite of the SDF's obvious indifference towards trade unions in general and their refusal to change policy even after their damaging split. MacLean however remained a member of the SDF, always arguing the case for the entire working class to be united. To this end, he saw potential in joining the co-operative movement and became an active member of the Pollokshaws Co-operative Society to which he gave much of his time. A tireless campaigner and public speaker, MacLean succeeded against all the odds in attracting solid recruits to the SDF. He held classes on economics and industrial history, regularly attended by hundreds of people. His open air meetings in Glasgow and elsewhere have become the stuff of legend and he wrote enthusiastically for the SDF paper, Justice.

However, the continuing refusal of the SDF leadership to have anything to do with the Labour Party was causing MacLean some concern. Nevertheless, events were gathering apace. Certainly at this time, MacLean was relentless in his constant political activity. By now, he was taking advanced economics classes in Greenock, Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Fife, speaking at meetings or outdoor gatherings, and even on his lunch break would visit a factory gate to address the workers and tell them of socialism. He explained in straightforward language the system of rent, interest and profit, and how exploitation produced surplus value, using everyday examples. The result of this work was a growing influence of Marxist ideas and the recruitment of some of the best layers of the workers and youth to the SDF. Branches were formed as far north as Lerwick.

In 1907, Jim Larkin, the leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, invited MacLean to Ireland. It was at the time when the Great Belfast Dock Strike was underway. MacLean addressed meetings of thousands, as Protestant and Catholic workers, mainly unskilled, stood shoulder to shoulder against the Unionist bosses. Police and troops were sent in to attack the strikers and three men were killed. This whole episode revealed conclusively to MacLean what he had been urging for some time: that industrial struggle politicised the working class. Dave Sherry, in his pamphlet John MacLean, correctly points to this time as being a turning point for MacLean and his political attitude. "From now on", writes Sherry, "he would be quick to recognise the revolutionary potential of trade union militancy wherever it raised its head..."

On his return to Scotland MacLean submerged himself into political activity like a human dynamo. He immersed himself in issues like the Education Bill as legislated for by the new Liberal government. MacLean campaigned for a "real Education Bill for Scotland" with provision to be made for secular education, free books, medical attention for all children, an extension of the school leaving age to 16 years, grants for working people to allow their children to go into higher education and university and more. MacLean was not entirely successful, of course, but he had succeeded in pushing at the boundaries of general working class thought and traditions and again inspired the more advanced. One of the reforms, which the Bill did contain, provided for School Boards to provide classes in any subject proposed by groups of more than 20 people.

The SDF began a campaign to have socialists elected to the School Boards with some success and instigated classes in economics. In the Eastwood School Board area, this was granted after the usual spat, and MacLean was appointed tutor, receiving the going

rate from the authorities for teaching Marxism! He was assisted in his teaching, by James Maxton, who had been influenced by MacLean during his student days. A trusted band of comrades, schooled in Marxist ideas, by anyone's reckoning. These included a young Co-operative employee, Jimmy MacDougall, who also assisted MacLean in his classes every week in central Glasgow, Pollokshaws, Greenock, Lanarkshire, Paisley, Govan and Falkirk.

By 1910, socialist ideas were no longer thought of as some remote or utopian dogma, but were proving a great attraction to significant layers of the working class

throughout the country. Nan Milton in her biography of her father illustrates an incident, which can only have reinforced MacLean's new direction and orientation, begun by his experiences at the Belfast Dock Strike a few years earlier. She relates the incident described to her by Jimmy MacDougall as follows:

"One of the villages in East Renfrewshire where he (MacLean) carried out systematic propaganda work was in the village of Nitshill. Like many other mining villages and towns throughout the country men and boys found employment in the mines, while the girls travelled to the nearest textile factories. These happened to be thread mills situated at Neilston some miles away. This was a very large factory employing thousands of girls and, of course, they were on piecework. One or two of the Nitshill girls, daughters of socialist miners, worked in the cop winding department, and they put forward demands for better prices. When the demands of the girls were refused, the whole mob of girls streamed out of the mill, shouting defiance at the management. Many of them were quite young, none of them had any experience whatever of organisation, but their fathers at Nitshill knew that to carry on strikes there had to be meetings, and so, they went for MacLean and his friends to come up and organise the girls.

"MacLean came and infused his own vigour and courage into these girls. He instructed them how they must act in order to win, not only in the immediate wage demand, but to be able in the future to protect themselves against the tyranny of the foremen or any unjust demand that might be made upon them. They must get into a trade union. MacLean himself took the initiative of writing to the Federation of Women Workers and very soon an array of women organisers and speakers were on the scene, including the famous Mary MacArthur. Miss Kate McLean, later Mrs Kate Beaton took a prominent part in organising the girls.

"The manager lived many miles away in Pollokshields, a 'posh' Glasgow suburb. The most prominent incident of the strike was when it was decided to have a march from Neilston right through the intervening towns and villages to Pollokshields in order to interview the manager. It can be understood that to lead such a disorderly, undisciplined horde of young girls, to whom the thing was more of a joke than anything else (they were carrying effigies of the manager which were intended to be burned) was by no means an easy job, but MacLean was equal to anything of that kind. He was full of fun and chaff, and so took the hearts of the girls that they would have done anything for him, with the result that no serious trouble occurred.

The march, with great banging of tin cans and shouting and singing, pursued its noisy way from Neilston to Pollokshields, where the respectable inhabitants were thoroughly disturbed. The meeting was held in a field adjacent to the managers' house, and then the weary strikers dispersed to find their own way home as best they might. The wage demands were won, the whole of the girls in the factory were organised, and a great mass of virgin minds received a favourable impression of their first contact with socialism."

[Continue to Part 2]

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